Your June 3 issue had two articles regarding the award of decorations for valor to Jews serving in the U.S. armed forces during the First World War. The first, “Daughter Seeks Highest Honor for Dad’s World War I Heroics,” implies that Sgt. William Shemin and other Jews serving in the armed forces were systematically denied medals during the war due to anti-Semitism. In fact, one person in the article is quoted as saying, “Thousands of Jewish soldiers served bravely in defense of our nation during World War I, but unfortunately discrimination at the time denied many of them certain military honors, including the Medal of Honor.”
The next article, “Remembering a Hometown Hero,” however, points out that out of the 126 U.S. servicemen to receive the Medal of Honor during WWI, three were Jews. Let me put this in context. WWI was fought from 1917-18, with most of the combat involving American forces taking place in 1918. According to the American Jewish Year Book of 1918, there were approximately 3,320,000 Jews living in the U.S. at that time. According to official U.S. Census data at the time, the overall population was approximately 103,208,000 people. That means that Jews made up about 3.2 percent of the population of the nation. As such, if 126 men were awarded the Medal of Honor it would be expected that three to four Jews should have been among those awarded the Medal.
The fact is it is and always has been pretty hard to be awarded a Medal of Honor, and many acts of great courage often go unrecognized. Geoffrey Perret in his book There’s A War To Be Won: The United States Army in World War II — which I think bears on WWI in this case as well — points out that, “There was some pretty rough justice in these awards, as there was for all decorations…. Some of the most impressive individual actions of the War, deeds that convinced every man who witnessed them that they’d just seen a Medal of Honor won before their astonished eyes, were slighted.”
Whether anti-Semitism played a part in the denial of Shemin’s being awarded the Medal of Honor, I do not know. It’s quite possible that in this case it was, but to suggest that Jews were routinely denied awards for valor due to their religion is simply unfair and unfounded.